Carlos Casas opens his experimental documentary-fiction film Cemetery (2019) with the following lines. They appear against the backdrop of a sublime image of the starry sky:

“Since the beginning of time, countless stories have been told and legends heard on the subject of the mythical elephant graveyard. An impassable mountain and a jungle of almighty power was said to lead adventurers through caves to underground rivers, where elephants allegedly go to die. Fueled by these fables, the poachers’ thirst for precious ivory proved insatiable and, among the many other disasters laid at their door, they finally succeeded in killing all the elephants, except for one. As their own world was now coming to an end, they set about following in the footsteps of the one remaining elephant who could lead them towards this secret place, seen only by men in their dreams.”

        A genre-defying film, Cemetery follows a Sri Lankan elephant, Nga, on its final journey to the fabled elephant graveyard as the human realm beyond the forest is shaken by an earthquake. The narrative of the film is split into four distinct parts. Part one starts with establishing the intimacy and bond between a Sinhalese mahout1and Nga, when the mahout performs a ritualistic farewell to the elephant by bathing it and praying it has a successful final journey. The second part explores the mysterious death of the poachers trailing Nga (focalized from the elephant's point of view). The third part culminates with Nga undergoing a spiritual transition into (and beyond) its fabled grave. The film concludes with a showcase of the sublime stillness of the forest: it remains unchanged and unaffected by these phenomena.

        While walking through the film’s pivotal moments, I will ask if there can exist a space beyond the Anthropocene — a post-Anthropocene Utopia if I may; a turn to utopian thinking inspired by Casas’ cinematic exploration. The film's four-part narrative provides a structure around which we can think through the movement from the Anthropocene to the post-Anthropocene, catalyzed by a turn towards utopian thinking.

beyond the anthropocene

In speaking of the Anthropocene, I predominantly refer to Dipesh Chakrabarty, who used the term to describe the present era in which humans are considered the planet's main agential force. Through the increase in human numbers and the impact of technologies, humans have become geological, rather than mere biological agents.2 Anthropogenic climate change is in this view a consequence of a hierarchy that places human needs on the top tier.

      Film as a human invention is anthropogenic but, it engages space and experience to create a sensory phenomena, namely an audio-visual one. Casas’ Cemetery heavily relies on it's multi-sensory nature; it's a film that provides a holistic sensorial experience as much as a plot.

        Blurring the lines between the human and nonhuman by focalizing nonhuman points of view, the film initiates its viewers in a trip toward a cosmological, transcendental understanding of space, time, and memory. I take the position that in the Anthropocene, humans relegate nature as an inert field for exploitation, thereby creating a hierarchy of the human over the nonhuman. Living in such an era, I wonder how a sensory experience via a digital, human-made medium lends itself to rendering an experience beyond the human. There must be a utopian idea to look forward to that reaches further than the experience of being human. Right now, I’m not interested in unearthing this utopia, but in understanding how and what a turn towards it might require.

        Etymologically, the word ‘utopia’ is a pun derived from the Greek words ou-topos, meaning ‘no place’, and eu-topos, meaning ‘good place’. Living in an overwhelmingly anthropocentric world, a post-Anthropocene utopia indeed seems like a good place that has no place.3 I would like to argue that it isn’t the utopia itself that needs realization but the change in perception, the utopian thinking that could become a catalyst towards the post-Anthropocene. The effect of the imagined perfection of a utopia is the crux that creates movement from the present to the ‘post-‘– the reality of this change wouldn’t result in a utopia but would rather affirm a new direction rooted in utopian thinking. Looking at it through the lens of Jill Bennett’s notion of art as "transactive" as opposed to "communicative",4 I argue that Casas’ film doesn’t merely communicate a plot; the affect it creates helps inspire the sort of utopian thinking needed for us to move towards a post-Anthropocene. By centralizing a nonhuman point of view, the film allows us to imagine a social order in which human desires or attitudes aren't given primacy. In other words, what the film does is create a platform to facilitate this transaction between the viewer and the environment by creating an experience that doesn’t end with merely viewing the film, but emotionally arches beyond it.

        Watching and experiencing Cemetery triggered in me a deep need to restructure and reconsider the anthropocentrism of my own thoughts and approaches. It also made me want to understand how a primarily anthropogenic medium such as film can employ us with the tools to take a turn towards a post-Anthropocene Utopia. In thinking along these lines, I am inspired by Anna Tsing who takes up the proactive direction of not just ‘what next?’ but, that of ‘what next with?’.5 Using this as my primary imagination of what a turn towards a post-Anthropocene utopia could look like I will now analyze two key scenes using theories on memory and time, dimensions which could act as potential tools to facilitate this turn.

memory of
the senses

Teal washes over deep blue; a clear sky. The sandy, ragged surface of the hills are revealed under the soft moonlight. Entropic dots of stars are scattered across the hues of the night. Their brightness drowns against the slow rising sun hidden behind the stoic silhouette of a rocky terrain. A silence is filled by a nameless, haunting sound that lends a deep hollow to the ears as the light grows.

        These are the initial scenes of Cemetery. What is the effect of such an imagination on one’s senses? How does it make one feel, react, and respond? Is there a (conscious) recollection of a place visited or is it lodged in a memory that was never lived? Is there the imagination of a utopia in mind?

        I use this description of the opening shot, to posit that such scenic, vivid imagery of hills at night, can act as a trigger for a specific kind of memory. One that reminds the human of their taxonomy as similar to that of an animal (or: their nonhuman kin); living and breathing as one amidst its environments. By laying complete emphasis on the senses, the scene (and the film on the whole) touches upon a memory of a nature that exists but perhaps has never been visited. This remembrance disjoints the hierarchy of the human in the Anthropocene by grounding us in the primal through the instincts of our senses. The film’s brilliance lies in how it curates an experience of the senses by experimenting with the depths and limitations of the tool that is film. What it achieves in the process is making accessible a sensorial memory that has perhaps been forgotten, or at the very least is extremely marginalised in the Anthropocene.

        According to Henri Bergson, memory can be categorized into two kinds: habit memory, one that is rooted in repeated practice and materialized through our bodily consciousness; and pure memory, the memory that is ephemeral, fundamental, perceptive, and lies beyond our consciousness. He adds that pure memory permits the acknowledgement of a lesson learnt in the past, one which cannot be repeated and is not internalized in the body.6 As I’ll illustrate, I believe that Cemetery presents us with cinematic depictions of pure memory, the sort that is needed for thinking post-Anthropocene utopianism. At this point, I’d like to introduce a sub-concept called ‘sensory memory’. Taken from the field of psychology, in my conception of it, sensory memory is pure memory which has the ability to help us make the utopian turn towards the post-Anthropocene. In the case of Casas' film, this is rendered as an affect7 via this audio-visual medium.8

        The turn to a post-Anthropocene utopia is fueled, in this instance, by a reminder of humanity's potential agency over the geological. Referring to Chakrabarty’s definition of the Anthropocene, this reminder doesn’t inspire a re-turn to a time before the Anthropocene, but instead facilitates a turn towards that which can dislodge the current agency of the human over the geological. A pure memory (specifically one triggered by the sensory) is awakened in me by this film, and it is that which is the force that guides me towards a post-Anthropocene Utopia.  

        A poignant scene in the film is when the mahout prepares the elephant for its journey by giving it a bath as it lazes in the river. In an interview, Casas reveals his approach to shooting this scene:

“One of the reasons I wanted to film with that particular elephant was to get those moments and to get to know the different parts of the elephant. You’re not usually allowed to spend 20 seconds looking at an animal of this kind in this way […] I wanted to touch that story in a way that was not too direct, but at the same time allowed the spectator to reimagine the elephant and connect to it in a different way.” 9

This screenshot illustrates this moment. The extreme close-up of the elephant that lays bare exposes the most minute details of the animal – its hair, its eyes, the texture of its skin. Such an image left me with a sensation of knowing what it would feel like to have touched the elephant, despite the knowledge that I have never touched one before. I believe it was an unfelt experience of the primitive senses, a pure memory, that created this experience. By virtue of this experience, the film becomes transactive – as a viewer, we aren’t just passively taking in the contents of the film but, by activation of the pure memory of our senses, we are also sparking a utopian thought that enables us to envision a world after the Anthropocene, the post-Anthropocene. This transactive nature cannot be written off as simply the affinity to empathy, but rather a "feeling for another that entails an encounter with something irreducible and different, often inaccessible.”10

past, present
& futures

Temporally speaking, Cemetery is edited in a non-linear way, and instead merges a pure memory of human history with the present. With Cemetery we cruise through a dislocation of time. Understanding this flattened, deconstructed temporality becomes an exercise in utopian thinking, for without it a turn towards the proposed post-Anthropocene utopia can’t be realized; a remembrance of a primitive past unlived needs to be realized in the present in order to move into a future. In connection to pure memory (the fundamental memory that lies beyond our consciousness), I understand this temporal merging through Deleuze’s proposition of the "crystal-image". A crystal-image is a shot that fuses the pastness of the recorded event with the presentness of its viewing.11 A sensory memory that is born out of a recollection of an instinctual past can also be understood as the niche precursor to becoming an ephemeral pure memory, a lesson that is from the past but returned to as the experience of sensory memory. It flattens a sense of time by virtue of its affect in the ongoing present through the experience of its viewing. Deleuze also makes a case for Bergson in stating that a present follows a past – a past exists because of its presentness at a point in time.12

        In the third part of the film, the elephant makes its journey into a realm beyond its fabled graveyard. Shadowy and showered in shades of grey, the film mimics something like a show of shadow puppetry, visible yet invisible, forcing the soundtrack to guide the narrative. As I watched this scene, focusing on the ever-so-slight movements, I felt limited; the experimental ambient sound was my only crutch. The affect that this scene produced is that in which I felt one with Nga. Although I personally don’t believe in an after-life, this scene grounded me in the fact that from dust we come, and to dust we go – human, nonhuman, the tree, the insect, the animal.  

        It might be a stretch to employ the crystal-image in analyzing an almost entirely sonic part of the film, but I ground this in an affirmation of sensory memory (as a category of pure memory) over the conventional understanding of an ‘image’ as a visual element. Casas collaborated with the musician Chris Watson to create a sort of “noise art” featuring sounds compiled from the latter’s sound archives. In the same interview cited earlier, Casas breaks down his intention with this scene:

       “I wanted the spectator to arrive there in the darkness and use their ears to navigate the shadows; to imagine their own space. Chris and I created a narrative that is purely sound in a way. One that can create a vision of the whole world. The viewer is kind of listening to the whole natural world at once. You’ve got underground sounds from the caverns of Iceland, seals from another space, and falling water in places like Iceland and India, all of which is from Chris’s archive.” 13

        The oneness that Casas speaks of is not limited to the space of the film but as an affect extends to the act of listening/viewing this spectacle. In doing so, it becomes a crystal-image that flattens time, through an effect on the senses, activating the sensory memory. The intention the filmmaker had of getting the spectator “listening to the whole natural world at once” is something the viewer may be ignorant of while watching the film but, nonetheless, is the sensation it produces. This awareness, I propose again, could come from an instinctual space of a response from the senses, ephemerally embedded (as pure memory) in the biological agency of human history, yet experienced in the Anthropocene; edging towards a shift in perspective that is needed to move to a post-Anthropocene Utopia. One where technology can be viewed as natural as a bird’s nest yet, also one where there is an active practice of care, of empathy, of grounding and of dislodging the anthropocentric hierarchies.

            Deleuze furthers his explanation on the concept of the crystal-image by stating that it acts as a two-way mirror that points in opposing directions, “one of which is launched towards the future while the other falls into the past. Time consists of this split, and it is … time that we see in the crystal”.14 Through Casas’ rendition of the elephant’s journey into the graveyard, the scene embodies this crystal nature – of a past remembered through the sonic experience and a future that is needed but yet to be realized through its lack of visual focus. Experienced in the present that is the Anthropocene, the response to a scene as such becomes the hinge that could propel the human to reconnecting with the nonhuman – a minute glimpse of what a shift towards utopian thinking for a post-Anthropocene utopia could look like.

The Continuing Vitality of Life

Anna Tsing urges that “it is time for scholars to look out beyond our models to the continuing vitality of life, both terrible and wonderful.”15 I found myself returning to these words repeatedly while writing this essay.  They put emphasis on the notion of working with what we have, of finding our way through the realities of the Anthropocene but not undermining the powers of the tools we’ve created. To look beyond current structures in itself is utopian thought. An imagination of a post-Anthropocene Utopia is detrimental to creating a pathway through our ruins, to find resilience and hope, and to ground ourselves in care. What the film demonstrates isn’t just utopian thought but a new perspective that has the potential to realize newer modes of knowledge, knowledge needed to live together with others.16 The shift in thinking, specifically towards utopian thinking becomes the start and end of this paper, leaving the realization of a utopia as an afterthought; an afterthought that one does not return to, but rather works towards.


1︎︎︎ Specific to South Asia and Southeast Asia, a mahout is a person who cares for, rides, and tends to an elephant in captivity.

2︎︎︎ Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Thesis.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009. p.206

3︎︎︎ More, Thomas. Utopia. 1551.

4 ︎︎︎ Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art. Stanford University Press, 2005. p.7
Bennett here grounds the notion that art can capture and transmit real experience. She asserts her explanation by saying that this affective transaction doesn’t in and of itself convey the purpose of an artwork but, it is about understanding what art does to give rise to thinking and feeling a certain way about a subject.  

5︎︎︎ Tsing in her book The Mushroom At The End of The World explores the notion of living within [late capitalist] ruins, by taking inspiration from the wild sprouting characteristic of the Shitake Mushrooms.

6︎︎︎ Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. 1896. p.163

7︎︎︎ In a Spinozan account, affect is understood as a force located beyond a palpable consciousness even if it becomes consciously perceptual (Cetinic and Diamanti, p.301). What this alludes to is that affect is posited as a precursor to logical cognition or meaning, as an involuntary response, primarily at the level of sensors (p.302).

8︎︎︎ Sensory memories in the context of psychology and physiology, are short-term memories that are associated with the five senses. An example would be remembering something from just a second of observation. I reframe the concept as an affect produced by the senses that isn’t short-term but, rather instinctive and primal – from a place long-forgotten by the mind but, held deep in the core of our bodies; which is why I posit it as a category under pure memory.

9︎︎︎ Reimagining an Elephant: Discussing Cemetery” with Carlos Casas. 2019,

10︎︎︎ Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art. Stanford University Press, 2005. p.8 (emphasis added)

11︎︎︎Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Continuum. p.79

12︎︎︎Al-Saji, Alia. The Memory of Another Past: Bergson, Deleuze and a New Theory of Time. Continental Philosophy Review, no. 37, 2004.

13︎︎︎Reimagining an Elephant: Discussing “Cemetery” with Carlos Casas. 2019,

14︎︎︎ Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Continuum. p.81

15︎︎︎Tsing, Anna. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.” Common Knowledge, no. 18:3, pp. 505-524. Duke University Press, 2012.



Al-Saji, Alia. “The Memory of Another Past: Bergson, Deleuze and a New Theory of Time.” Continental Philosophy Review, no. 37, 2004, pp. 203–39, doi:10.1007/s11007-005-5560-5.

Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art. Stanford University Press, 2005.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. 1896.

Casas, Carlos. Cemetery. 2019.

--- Reimagining an Elephant: Discussing “Cemetery” with Carlos Casas. 2019,

Cetinic, Marija, and Jeff Diamanti. “Affect.” A Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory, First, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2017, pp. 301–11.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Thesis.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009, doi:

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Continuum.

More, Thomas. Utopia. 1551.

Tsing, Anna. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.” Common Knowledge, no. 18:3, pp. 505-524. Duke University Press, 2012.


Maithri (she/they) is a second-year Research Master's student of Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Their interest lies in observing, understanding, and making deeper connections between sociocultural structures, chiefly focusing on precarity, post-colonialism, and capitalism. They can be found reading on public transport, playing the guitar to her plants, or watching films.

Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Spring/Summer 2022 Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Kavya Venkatraman, Nicholas Burman – Contributors: Felix Luke, Misha Kakabadze, Oskar Johanson, Nicholas Burman, Maithri, Frédérique Albert-Bordenave – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Wordmark: Clint Soren – Site: dolor~puritan x cargo – Published: 1 March 2022